Excursions to other (corporate) cultures – Marc Gasser and his experiences in South Korea
Last autumn, Marc Gasser, a business it specialist, was on his way to Korea to bring an unusual product for Koreans to the man: a platform through which every employee of a company has something to say and can contribute ideas. A headstand for the socially still very traditional Korea. He succinctly describes to the PCU how the country and people react to such an idea, and what makes Korea as a market otherwise interesting.
Marc, you were last fall for Astina in Korea. How did you experience your time there?
Since we wanted to establish a sales office for a platform in the field of innovation management, people were skeptical, but also curious. This is completely contrary to the culture and structures of the Koreans. There is a top-down hierarchy.
Otherwise, as a Western European, you are more of an exotic. When you’re in town, you don’t see foreigners, western people for two or three days. The ones you see are mostly American soldiers, at most Japanese and Chinese working in Korea. There are still cases where the young children look at you with big eyes and shout “Eeehh, Oegugin!”, which means “foreigners”.
Is it easy or difficult to do business in Korea?
(Considered) Well, that’s hard to say. Korea, I mentioned, is culturally quite different. There you first become friends, you get to know the people, you go with them, you drink with them, you still drink something with them, you eat something with them (laughs). You get to know the family and so on. When the friendship comes at some point, you start doing business. Someone my age and position is very special to a Korean businessman. Koreans are used to starting in a large company and working their way up for over 30, 40 years. Only then do you reap the rewards and find yourself in a position where you can decide on others and make decisions, a managerial job. Age is a huge issue in Korea. Someone who is old automatically gets respect – the young one who has to work first – said a bit exaggerated.
It is therefore quite provocative when a young guy comes from Switzerland, culturally unadapted, makes mistakes at dinner, and then claims to be the boss of a company and want to do business. However, Switzerland has a good reputation, which helps, and the very innovative or Western oriented companies, which are then really interested.
Your product is therefore something very unusual for the structures there. Are Koreans open and creative enough to be able to do anything with it?
It is often the case that the Koreans are a bit lost when they are given the task of being “sometimes creative” and “bringing in innovations”. Then they ask themselves, “Am I creative now or do I have to be accountable to my boss and already define projects?” The Koreans are basically no less creative than the Swiss, but culture does not really promote creativity. It may only be used once a certain status has been achieved. It demands a great deal for the corporate culture to open up in this way and for people to feel dare and equally obliged to contribute, not in the form of normal work performance, but thought beyond the box. Once this node has burst, the Koreans have great creative potential.
Have you been in contact with local start-ups and young entrepreneurs?
That is true, but I have noticed that the start-up culture is still not represented there. It is slowly emerging, but Korea has so far been a country of large companies, be it local or international, that comes into the country. A Western company of our size, however, there is no such thing as not. Accordingly, the start-up culture is slowly getting under way and is actively supported by politics, but is really only in its infancy. I have great respect for the people who start a start-up in Korea, which is something completely different from that in Switzerland, there is a completely different “mind set” culturally than here.
Are there already special subsidies in Korea for young entrepreneurs and start-ups? And is there social support?
Society is an important point. I had the feeling that you must not “fail”, you must not lose, but must always get “step-by-step” up. The ascent is also very competitive: you have to have the nicer woman, you have to have the better car, the better apartment, the better location for the office… This is strongly anchored in society. If you have a start-up, that’s okay as long as you’re successful. The risk of “failing” is not greater, but it is more socially far-increasing than in Switzerland. Therefore, the pressure is greater.
Politically, Korea is very exciting at the moment. Thirty years ago, there was nothing there. It does not have a remotely developed industry as it is today. This has been extremely pre-emanating during this period. There are currently elections about the new “major”. This is quite relevant to the development and promotion culture for start-ups, because whether they are more supported or not depends very much on the government. When I was in Korea in the fall, there were primaries and the candidate who doesn’t want funding like that won. From this, it remains to be seen what is happening again. Otherwise, there are four or five initiatives, but there is more to the business plan championship.
In which areas are the Koreans particularly advanced and where are they still in their infancy?
Progressive… (considered). I have the impression that they are ahead of us in many respects. Of course, there are points that we, as Swiss, as Western Europeans, perceive as ‘behind the top’. However, I cannot necessarily say that they are in their infancy wherever we think that is the case. This has more to do with cultural habits and differences with Western cultures. That’s why “children’s shoes” is a dangerous word. Where they are definitely ahead of us are technical stuff. But the decision-making culture is also very ambitious in business. If anything needs to be done, ZACK, the day after it is already fully running and changed within a very short time. There is an incredible drive. I was abroad for two weeks during my trip to Korea. In these two weeks, in the street where I lived, three new restaurants opened, four new businesses opened and four closed. I just thought WOW! And all this in two weeks. People are so motivated and intense in their work. That’s why it’s dangerous to ask, “Who’s next?” What is definitely impressive about Korea is that they are heading to the top of the world at full steam.
Can Switzerland cut itself off from this joy of decision-making and enthusiasm? The Swiss corporate culture is known for the fact that there is a lot of discussion…
(laughs) That is an interesting observation. In business, koreans are really fast and sometimes even quite unbureaucratic. There are areas where the opposite is true, but mostly it is so “zack zack zack, there is something going”. They have also culturally anchored that a “this is not possible” is not in the minds. When the boss says something, you try to do it, whether it’s difficult or even simply not possible. We quickly say, “That’s not possible.” And point.
On the other hand, I have to say that Korea is an incredibly exciting country, but I cannot imagine living there any longer. There are few casual moments. In Switzerland, it is still important to go to the mountains with your family at the weekend or to have a beer with colleagues in the evening. This “cozy” is hardly available in Korea. The same is true of the holidays: Koreans have very few vacation days anyway. The fact that you take them in one piece is quite a luxury hardly anyone does. And I like to work, but I still need the compensation in private. And there is no place in Korea.
Could you take something for Astina through your trip?
I was able to meet incredibly interesting and experienced people. That’s a great thing that helped me a lot. I was with the ambassador, was allowed to visit European chambers of commerce, for example those of Germany and Sweden, and even to speak to CEOs of huge companies through recommendations. At the age of 60 or 70, they have such a wealth of experience. Most of the time, they were in the process of building the company properly. When these people give you the chance to talk to them about how they did what the difficulties were, what they were of hierarchies… Then that is a great enrichment.
If a company wants to enter the international market; Is Korea a suitable country to start the field trial?
Let me reword this a bit: “Going international” is a question that every company has to ask itself. If you choose Korea as your destination, many people say, “This is not because of that and that. That’s way too small…” However, I have a bit of a habit that when 70% say it is not possible, I want to know it all the more. That is why we conducted an extensive analysis of the Korean market and, on the basis of these values, decided to really flock to it. Like Switzerland, Korea is an ideal test market. Especially for software companies, such as Astina, as the range of products on offer is still quite underdeveloped. At the same time, the pressure to innovate is extremely great. In addition, I believe that if you play a pioneering role, there are many advantages to be enjoyed. This starts with the support of consulates or chambers of commerce, and goes all the way to the “super easy access” to the top elite there. In other Asian countries, such as Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong or China, I do not think that would have been possible, because there are hundreds of others like me, where the competitive pressure would be much stronger. And that’s why I see only a minimal risk that the entry should not work.
Marc, thank you very much for the interesting conversation, and continue to have success in your ventures.
Marc Gasser studied business informatics at Uppsala University in Sweden and at the University of Zurich. Among other things, he received the Philias CSR Award 2006/2007 and was awarded the semester award of the University of Zurich for the publication “A Validation of Action Patterns for Project Managers”.